What the Food Network Show “Chopped” Can Teach Nonprofits About Storytelling

What the Food Network Show “Chopped” Can Teach Nonprofits About Storytelling

In the Food Network show Chopped, just before chefs present their first dish to the judges, they must answer the question, “What would it mean for you to win?” 

In the Food Network show Chopped, chefs compete to cook the best dish based on a basket of mystery ingredients. Just before contestants present their first dish to the judges, they must answer the question: What would it mean for you to win?

The winner gets $10,000, but winning Chopped means so much more than money. This is the story element of the show. Each chef is playing for something personal to them. Some play in hopes of winning seed money for a new venture. Some play to prove something to themselves, to family, or even to an entire culture. Some want to pay a sibling’s medical bills, take a long-delayed honeymoon, or travel to see a special family member. And so, the drama of the show is not only about whether these chefs can make something amazing from a basket of random ingredients. It’s about hopes and dreams, family quarrels, breaking barriers.

Define the “win” to motivate donors.

We could learn a lot from these Chopped contestants. We are more than what we do, more than the methods we use, or the ingredients we’re delt. The missing piece in some of our stories is this “what does it mean?” element. There is much to gain, and much to lose in your mission. When you share about your mission, show us what is at stake.

  • What does it mean to win? If you’re funded and the mission succeeds?
  • Conversely, what happens if your mission is not funded? 

In an early episode of Chopped, one contestant’s goal was to travel to see her grandmother in another country. It would be her last chance see this special woman. In the end, this contestant lost the cooking competition, but the winning chef was so moved by her story that he paid for her ticket.

When you make the stakes clear and define the “win” for donors, they are more likely to be feel motivated for your cause. Your wins are their wins. It feels good! A project with nothing at stake doesn’t move people to act. Obviously, we don’t want to exaggerate, but we do need to make stakes clear. Don’t assume people will automatically connect the dots between your project and the real impact it has. It’s up to us to help donors make those connections.

That childcare center you’re funding? I doesn’t just mean moms get a break. It means they can work without worrying about their children. That they can say, “Yes” to new opportunities. It means children are more prepared for school and more likely to break cycles of poverty. What happens if childcare isn’t available? What doors remain shut for these families then?

It’s up to us as storytellers to clearly show what happens when we win–and when we lose.

Reduce Friction for Fundraising Success – PT1

Reduce Friction for Fundraising Success – PT1

Why aren’t people giving? Maybe there’s too much friction–little things in your messaging or in your presentation that cause hesitation or second-guessing. This week we look at friction in storytelling, and what to do about it.

Friction isn’t always bad – it’s what makes the brakes on your car work. But in fundraising, we don’t want people to put on the brakes! For us, friction is something that makes it harder than it should be to give, to volunteer, or to help in any way.

Most advice for cutting down friction focuses on the donation page. We’ll look at that in the next episode. But for now, I want to focus on friction caused by gaps in our storytelling and missed opportunities because we don’t have the right materials on hand.

Ignore the donor’s journey at your peril.

When we talk about the donor’s journey, we’re talking about the process a person goes through where they get to know you, like you, and trust you. Those three things need to happen before they will “try” you–before they will give or get involved.

Every potential donor you meet is asking these questions:

  • Do I know this person?
  • So I know someone who knows them?
  • Do I like them? (this takes just seconds).
  • Can I trust them?

If they don’t know, like, and trust you, most people will not give to you. They will not give you their platform, and they will not introduce you to their people.

When we feel pressured to raise funds, we can enter into situations with expectations that aren’t in line with the relationship. We skip steps in the donor journey and go straight for the ask–or we start dropping hints. That causes friction.

At times, you’ll be introduced to someone new by someone they already know, and like, and trust. The person who introduces you is lending you their credibility. It’s easier for the new person to trust you, because someone they know, like, and trust already trusts you and recommends you. That reduces the friction.

When you’re coming in cold, you have to give the relationship time and create a pathway that shows them who you are, what you’re about (values), introduces them to your mission and vision, and earns their trust.

Help them help you.

The unbreakable rule for reducing friction is to make it easy for people to support you.

When you meet with someone, don’t expect them to remember everything you said. Be prepared for the conversation with a case document or a one-sheet that covers the basic information they need.

People will often need to check with a spouse, missions committee, or others before making a decision about support for your cause. Your materials should give them exactly what they need to present your case.

These materials should be well-written, thought-out, and easy to follow. Your case document should cover the donor’s journey (yes, you can do it in just a few paragraphs), tell them exactly what the need is, and how they can give. Hand that to them with your contact information and an invitation to answer their questions.

Make everything easy to read.

In all your materials, online and in print, make everything easy to read. Anything over a 7th or 8th grade reading level will lose people. Even if your supporters are well educated with postgraduate degrees–no one likes to work at reading. Difficult sentences, long words, and big paragraphs all create friction. 

Avoid the “wall of text” approach, where you cram as much information as possible onto a page. Small fonts, tiny margins, and a lack of white space (empty space) around your text make your materials hard to read. Help donors by making your materials easy on their eyes.

You should know that most people are looking at your emails and your website on a phone or other mobile device. Keeping that in mind, make your paragraphs short (2-3 sentences each). Design everything so it looks good and displays correctly on a mobile device.

By reducing friction for donors, you’ll give yourself an advantage and make it more likely that they’ll follow through with a gift. In the next episode, I’ll talk about things you can do to reduce friction in the donation process.

Every Story is About Change

Every Story is About Change

Every story needs change, regardless of the story’s focus. By recognizing this and emphasizing it, you can engage and connect with your donors more effectively.

As nonprofit leaders, we’re dedicated to making a difference and changing lives through our work. But when it comes to sharing about that work with donors, we tend to focus on reporting on our activities and achievements rather than emphasizing the actual impact and transformation taking place.

The transformation story is a key part of an effective fundraising strategy. That’s the familiar before and after story. But all of our stories need to show change.

Change is essential for a story.

Every story is fundamentally about change, and any story without change falls flat.

A story without change is a like a wall without bricks. Change isn’t just a part of story, it’s what story is made of. 

–Damien Walter

Change always has an emotional element. The two go hand in hand; that makes them a great duo for your storytelling repertoire. Knowing where to look for change and how to show that change in your storytelling can unlock a treasure trove of stories for your cause. 

Donors want to see the real difference their contributions are making. Reporting back to donors with numbers and reports of what you did is good. But it’s not a story if nothing changes. Which of these feels more like a story your donors would appreciate?

a) We delivered 50 pallets of water to families after the storm.

b) Thanks to you, 600 families have fresh water after flooding contaminated the local water supply.*

The first sentence says what you did. The second shows the change (and gives donors the credit).

Change can occur in various forms, and it isn’t limited to the person you’re writing about. The main character (the person you’re focusing on), undergoes the most significant change. But other characters, and the world around them, may also experience transformation. 

Many things may change at once. Sometimes, we’re so focused on the big change we’re hoping for that we miss other changes taking place.

It’s easy to overlook some changes.

Small or incremental changes. Not all changes are grand or dramatic. Even small decisions, especially over time, can bring real change. Think about some small action you take every day. What would happen if you stopped that habit? And what happens when you start a new habit? The changes we need to start a new habit are often small, but they have a tremendous impact. 

Internal changes. Changes in the way we think, attitude changes, or shifts in approach are often the seed for bigger transformations. The only way to know how a person experienced an event, how they feel, or what their thought processes were, is to talk with them and ask. Hone your interviewing skills and be willing to spend the time to get these types of stories.

Changes sparked by challenges, interruptions, or failure. As nonprofit leaders, we do hard things. Not everything will go according to plan. Don’t shy away from these stories. Donors tend to respond well to stories that show how organizations adapt and grow, so let them in on these “behind the scenes” stories.

Consider different types of change and the steps that lead to significant transformations. Highlight the implications of the change and the potential it holds for the future. Consider what the world would be like if the change doesn’t take place.

When you write, ask yourself:

What changed? Or, where is the change?

What could change?

What needs to change? (and what’s the consequence if it doesn’t)

Build stories with change and help donors see the difference they make when they give.

What Formula One Can Teach Nonprofits About Storytelling

What Formula One Can Teach Nonprofits About Storytelling

Sports can teach us a lot about nonprofit storytelling. In this episode, we’re looking at two examples of sports using storytelling to reach people and to teach people – two things all nonprofits need to do. Formula One uses storytelling to fuel explosive growth into new markets, and we’ll also look at how ESPN uses sports to shine a light on issues of life and death.

As a missionary, as a ministry or nonprofit leader, you are doing important work, but a lot of that work just doesn’t seem to catch on with the people you’re trying to reach. Sports can have a similar problem. There is always inherent drama in a good sports matchup, but not everybody is into the game itself. 

Who are these people? What in the world are they doing? And why? Why would I watch something I don’t understand?

Formula 1 racing used to be a sport enjoyed almost exclusively by older, well-off European males. Complex rules, complicated courses, and a format that makes it hard to follow all meant the sport was just too difficult for a casual observer to enjoy. But recently, TV viewership for races has exploded, F1 events are selling out, and the stands are filled with new fans. Women are in the crowd–and young people. What happened?


The key driver behind the explosion of F1 racing into new markets is storytelling.

Drive to Survive is a Netflix show about the people behind Formula 1 racing. The show focuses on the characters–drivers and billionaire owners–and gives us an insider’s view. There is very little actual racing. The narrative introduces the sport to us a little at a time.

As these stories unfold, people become more familiar with the sport and its key players. They begin to care about the people involved. They gain a basic understanding of the rules. They can follow along.

Isn’t this what we want for our supporters, too?

ESPN’s 30 for 30: Pink Card tells the story of women in Iran and their love for soccer–and their quest for freedom. The series is about the injustices faced by women in Iran, as illustrated by the struggle of female soccer fans fighting for the right to attend soccer matches at the national stadium.

These sports shows do the same things your stories have to do: provide a gradual, understandable explanation of your mission without sensationalizing or trivializing it, and without alientating long-time supporters. (Okay, these shows might sensationalize…but I hope you won’t.)

Just as people interested in the “characters” who drive F1 race cars can learn about Formula 1 racing by watching stories on Netflix, soccer fans can learn about gender inequality and human rights abuses by listening to four episodes of the 30 for 30 podcast. With stories, outsiders can gain awareness about your cause, understand why your work is important, and how they can get involved.

Storytelling builds bridges.

Storytelling is what takes people who don’t know about your mission and moves them–step by step–into a supporting role.

What story will you tell next?

3 Questions Your Writing Must Answer

3 Questions Your Writing Must Answer

There are many reasons to write, but when we are writing to move someone to action, we must be crystal clear. In this episode, you’ll learn three questions to help ensure you’re communicating clearly.

I recently attended the Hope Words conference for writers, where one of the speakers was Katherine Paterson. Mrs. Paterson is the author of over 40 books and the recipient of many awards for her writing, including two Newberry Medals. She told us about a time when she got a note from her long-time editor about a certain paragraph. She had taken great care with this paragraph and she held it dear.

The editor’s note said, “It’s beautiful, Katherine, but what does it mean?”

As a writer, I feel the pain of having something I’ve labored over being misunderstood or torn apart. As an editor, I know it’s a question that must be asked.

All our beautiful writing and storytelling is worthless if it isn’t clear.

To be clear in our nonprofit writing, we must answer three key questions:

  1. What is happening?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. What do you want me to do about it?

By answering these questions, you can provide context for your message and make it clear what action you want your readers to take.

How to be a Fundraising Super Bowl Star

How to be a Fundraising Super Bowl Star

The Fundraising Super Bowl is your nonprofit’s big game – and winning looks like raising the funds you need to serve. Here are some lessons from that “other” big game.

In 1961, on the first day of training camp for the Green Bay Packers, coach Vince Lombardi stepped in front of his team. These players were some of the best in the game, but their previous season had ended with a heartbreaking 4th quarter loss in the Championship game.

Coach Lombardi held up a ball. 

“Gentlemen,” he said, “this is a football.”

They started training camp with the fundamentals of the game. Blocking. Tackling. Every small thing. The basics.

Lombardi never lost in the playoffs again – the Super Bowl trophy? It’s called the Vince Lombardi trophy. 

But even the best at the game aren’t perfect.

Don’t Give Up Because You’re Not Perfect

This year, the winning quarterback was Patrick Mahomes. In the game, he completed 21 of 27 passes. The Eagles’ Jalen Hurts completed 27 of 38 passes.

See? Not perfect.

I find that reassuring.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. When you talk to people about funding your mission, do you get a “yes” every time?

You don’t just stop doing these things when it doesn’t go your way. 

During the season, MVP Mahomes completed just 67% of his passes (actually, that’s really good). I’m sure he’d love to be perfect, but he also knows there has never been a perfect game. 

Nobody has ever started and finished a game without throwing an incomplete pass. Nobody.

Can you imagine if Patrick Mahomes went out to play, threw a couple of incomplete passes, and then said, “That’s it! We obviously need to just run the ball. No more passing, because I can’t complete every one.”

Your Real Job as the Fundraising Quarterback

If you’re the quarterback on your fundraising team, your job is simply to move the ball down the field. You aren’t trying for a touchdown on every play. Line up your team, and execute the appropriate play for the moment. 

In fundraising, that means you’re doing the basics.

  • Communicating consistently with donors.
  • Getting your message in front of new people.
  • Thanking them when they give.
  • Sending emails.
  • Telling stories. 
  • Reporting back.

Ladies, and gentlemen, this is an email. This is a phone call. This is a face to face visit.

These are the basics that move us incrementally down the field, one play at a time.

Some of those incompletes have nothing to do with you. Other times, you need more practice, or training, or time with a coach. Maybe you’ve got an injury that keeps you from playing your best. If you’ve been hurt by something somebody said; if you’ve got ministry wounds, or you don’t have people encouraging you along the way, those are all things that need attention. It happens. It’s part of the game. Treat the wound. Do the basics.

Play by play. 

Story by story.

I want to see you making those incremental steps. I want to see you getting better and better at telling stories and sharing with your donors, bringing people along with you, building out your team, your fanbase.

I’ll leave you with one more Vince Lombari quote:

“Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

Keep doing the basics–with excellence. If you need training to tell your stories, check out Mission Writers